"Reversal of fortune? No way. Reversal of skill." -Uffish Thought
Question #91421 posted on 06/10/2018 7:19 a.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I'm not sure if this is the best place to ask this question, but after losing my faith I've struggled with identifying a foundation for determining morality. I see no evidence for a belief in God, and with that means that I struggle with knowing what is right/wrong since without a higher being, morality must be a human construct. To those who have gone through a faith crisis, what do you recommend using to determine how to act and what causes to support?

For now, I've made the determination that for me what is moral is what make the world a better place, as defined by what will bring happiness and joy to more people without hurting others. I'm just curious if any of you have thought through this and what conclusions you may have landed on.

-Trying to make the world a better place, whatever that means

A:

Dear person,

I haven't lost my faith at this point but the way I think about morality has changed significantly in the past year or two. I've also worried a significant amount about what "good" really means on and off about eight or nine years. So that's where I'm coming from.

First, I can't stop myself from talking about one thing with your question. I actually disagree with the premise that "without a higher being, morality must be a human construct" because there are other alternatives. I won't get into this much because I don't have the energy but, if you want, you can read a little bit about moral realism vs moral relativism/constructivism to get some vocab to read up on other ideas. Okay, the end of unsolicited pontification.

To answer your question, I personally find the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas to be pretty compelling. Briefly summarized, my understanding of what he said is this: Each of us is indebted to others for our sense of self because the self exists only in relation to others. Because of this, we have a reciprocal ethical obligation - "infinite responsibility" - to others to recognize their separate selfhood. What I take away from Levinas is that being ethical means recognizing the selfhood of others by never dehumanizing or objectifying them or ignoring them, even when you can't do anything for them.

Levinas' ethics don't give any indication of what leads to the greatest good for the most people or to a set of rules to adhere to for maximum morality or anything like that. However, I do think his ideas form a solid foundation on which to make decisions. I guess I assume that when I see every other as a self that I have fulfilled my main obligation and will be driven after to make decisions that honor the humanity of everyone, including the people that I end up helping as well as the people I don't have the resources to do anything for. This makes sense to me because, ultimately, I can never know which of my actions will bring the greatest good to the most people, which abstract moral principle is the most important, or what the best way to act in any given context is. 

-Sheebs at 1:00 am philosophizing on the internet at random strangers maybe not making sense, goodnight

A:

Dear Trying,

Thank you for asking these questions! Although you are far from the only person to wonder about what actually is the right thing to do, and what morals our decisions should be based on, they're questions that probably more people should reflect on. 

Personally I like the philosophy of John Rawls when it comes to wondering about how to act in relation to others. Basically he said that the best way to create the type of society people actually want to live in is to ask ourselves what principles we would agree to in an initial situation of equality. The world as is is rife with inequality and differences of opinion and belief that make it hard to agree on what the "right thing" to do is, but consider this thought experiment from Rawls: suppose that we as humans gathered to determine what rules and institutions we wanted to live by. But imagine that this meeting took place behind a "veil of ignorance" that keeps us from knowing any personal details about ourselves--our social class, our political leanings, our religion, our health status, our gender, our sexual orientation, our race and ethnicity, our family situation, etc. In that situation, what policies and laws would we set up? How would we act in relation to others? Probably we would try to organize policies that make as many people happy as possible, because we would want to make sure that we're not impeding our future selves once the veil of ignorance is lifted and we're able to lead our normal lives. Although something like this is impossible in real life, I like the idea behind it--how would I want to be treated if I were in someone else's shoes? In some ways it's just a more complicated version of the Golden Rule, but I like it nonetheless.

If you're interested in more ideas about how to govern ourselves with regards to morals in a society where people don't even agree on morals, you might enjoy the book Justice by Michael Sandel. It's an entire book about that question, and it's pretty good. 

-Alta